Bad Idea: Stand up a Private Army in Iraq to Take the Place of Departing U.S. Forces

The pullout of the final U.S. combat brigade from Iraq last week was the penultimate step in the military's withdrawal from the country at the end of 2011. At that time, the State Department, utilizing a large number of private security contractors (PSC), will take responsibility for performing many of the tasks the Department of Defense (DOD) has been carrying out. Problem is, State isn't very good at overseeing contractors.

There are roughly 19,000 private security contractors working in Iraq, mostly performing static security at bases and embassy facilities, or moving security in motorcades and convoys. Approximately 14,000 of those PSCs work for DOD, while State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) employ some combination of the remaining 5,000.

Not only will State inherit all 19,000 PSCs, the agency estimates it will need another 6,000 to 7,000 contractors to carry out its responsibilities. Preparations for the changeover, according to a recent New York Times piece, have been under way for months, as the military has identified more than 1,200 specific tasks "to be handed over to the civilians, transferred to the Iraqis or phased out."

Oh boy, this could get ugly

Private security contractors, acting through the State Department, will continue to provide standing and moving security, and the training of Iraqi police and soldiers, but they will also have to supply quick reaction combat teams, route clearance, recovery of wounded personnel, removal of damaged vehicles, and the detection and disposal of explosive devices.

Unfortunately, the PSCs, like the State Department, lack experience in performing many of these tasks. This may create a nightmare scenario where the State Department, due to lack of experience and too few oversight personnel, can't adequately oversee contractors tasked with new and difficult duties to perform; not helpful to a fledgling democracy.

A recent Commission on Wartime Contracting (CWC) hearing revealed the inadequacies of the State Department's oversight capabilities. State will oversee its tens of thousands of PSCs through its Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which comprises a whopping 1,800 officers, only 800 of who are overseas at any one time. Mind you, that's throughout the entire globe, so Iraq gets a fraction of those personnel.

An overreliance on contractors not only creates an environment ripe for conflicts of interest, but a lack of oversight breeds corruption and increases the chances of a significant event occurring, which would likely incur civilian casualties, that mars the reputation of the United States.

Moreover, while few government officials will cede that contractors are performing inherently governmental tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan, though they are, the State Department's plan to so heavily rely on contractors would only increase the occurrences of PSCs carrying out supposedly government-only duties.

If you thought we had problems with contractors when the Pentagon was running the show, get ready for things to turn really bad if the State Department can't get its act together.

Image by Flickr user The U.S. Army used under a Creative Commons license.

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